Kansas Quilt and the Old Kissing Point, Lindsborg
“We’re thinking of visiting Coronado Heights,” I tell the receptionist at the Swedish Country Inn when my boyfriend, Keith, and I emerge from the sauna in the hotel basement. A friendly woman, as people tend to be in Lindsborg, Kansas, she had asked Keith and I our plans for the day. For a moment, she takes her attention away from a basketball game blaring from the tv screen behind me. It’s Kansas University vs. Kansas State and everyone who is anyone is watching the game that day.
“Oh… yea,” she said, distantly, and something about her tone makes me assume the locale is a common trip for tourists. After all, it is known as the local make-out point. “Yea, it’s up there, past town. Take this street to your left, three blocks, to the first stop sign. It’s actually the only stop sign. Then take a right and you’ll see it. From there you can see everything, our little town, all the farms, what I called the Kansas Quilt. It’s a nice little grid.” Her eyes float just past my shoulder. Kansas State scores two points and the crowd erupts in cheers. The sound fills the empty lobby and ricochets off the wooden Swedish furniture around the room.
I whine as we start to pack up the car, waddling with my oversized blue suitcase in my hand. I’m drowsy from not enough sleep during the last leg of what will be a two-week trip from Los Angeles to Chicago. It’s outrageously cold and I am improperly dressed. Though I’m a Midwestern girl at heart and I’d only been in LA a year, something inside me forgot what cold really felt like. Once I moved back home, it would take some getting used to the feeling like the wind was blowing straight through my clothes and into my bones – which it probably was with my pathetic excuse for a winter coat – and my fair skin feeling raw and dry for months at a time. We had begun driving during the aftermath of a nationwide snowstorm and only then did I start to think that moving back home was a half-baked idea. But I was looking for home, and just couldn’t find it out there. At that point I wasn’t sure where I’d find it, but I figured I’d start looking in a place that I considered to be a home: Chicago. Lindsborg was one stop on the map we decided to make to break up the cross-country drive.
My leather boots are soaked straight through from the slush on the sidewalks and streets that have gone unplowed for days. Lest I forget, this was rural Kansas, not my big city, where on good days plows were out the night of a storm, clearing the snow as it fell. My eyes droop, my stomach full from a breakfast of Swedish pancakes and lingonberries. Even though I had too much coffee, I still I feel sluggish, my body recovering from our morning sweat in the Swedish redwood sauna in the creaky basement of the old hotel.
After breakfast that morning, we ventured down a flight of wooden stairs into the basement of the Inn. Long before it was a hotel, the building had functioned as a grain and feed store with its basement serving as its storage area. Now it was surrounded by wood paneling on all sides, with a corner sectioned off by a glass door that lead to the sauna. We secured the flimsy privacy rope at the bottom of the stairs, a symbol to trespassers that bathers were in the sauna below. We rinsed ourselves in the narrow shower before cranking the temperature knob on the wood-paneled door and daring one another to completely strip. After a few minutes of deliberating in the cold, we pulled off our clothes among old town ghosts, the Andersons, the Johnsons, the something-Quists. I imagined whispers and shadows from the animal feed bins and carriage parts lingering on my white winter skin, dry from the subzero temperatures. Above, I heard fine china clinking as the kitchen girl cleared tables in the historic dining room, dusting Dala horses, snacking on leftover Wasabröd. Free of our clothing, Keith and I entered the heated time capsule to sweat out any lingering impurities. We emerged from the wooden room ready to follow the path of Keith’s past. His ancestors had come from Sweden to settle this town back in the 19th century. We would explore the entire place, retracing the boundaries of his great-great-great grandfather’s general store, his unique brick home, and old church confirmation pictures, right up to the old tradition of make-out point, Coronado Heights. Keith was delving deeply into his own past, but I was on my own quest for settlement, leaving the West Coast after a year of trial and tribulation, deciding to pursue a life in the heartland, a city closer to my own heart. In just a few short days, Keith and I would be back in Chicago. That was about as far as my plans for the future went. As a surprise to myself, I was okay with that. I was just glad to be out of that dry, overheated megacity that made me feel like I was anywhere but home.
The silver sedan creeps along what would have been gravel roads in the summer. But it’s February, so instead they are covered six inches deep in snow packed down from car traffic during the epic storm days before. Cautious of the wide, flat-surfaced tires made not for country driving in winter but California cruisin’ all year long, Keith points the steering wheel toward Coronado Heights.
Picket fences divide acres of farmland, coated in blanket upon blanket of untouched snow. The tips of grain grasses peek out above the white powder. Oil drills pump up and down, extracting the black tea feeding local post-farming families. And the hill of Coronado Heights rises in the distance as we pull away from town. SUVS and trucks pass us on the left. We drive only 25 miles per hour, fearful of gliding off the snowy road and getting stuck, yet again. Heading out past the neat rows of country houses, we cross-reference our hand-written directions with our iPhones and Google Maps. Soon enough we ditch the devices; there really only is one hill in sight. That had to be it. After all, this was Kansas. How many hills could there be? We take a left turn on Coronado Heights road, pass one sleepy ranch, more oil drills, and cornhusks peeking out over the freshly fallen snow. The car crawls past the entrance to the hill. We pull off the main drag and Keith attempts to parallel park as close to the side of the road as he can. The snow is too high to see where road ends and grass begins, so he ditches it where it is. Unnecessary city fears overtake me: a potential car accident, a parking ticket, and strange glances from local passerby. But I could see in all four directions on the flat land. No one was in sight. A light winter wind brushed my face. The peak of Coronado beaconed me. I looked up at the white-gray sky, turned towards the hill, put one snowy boot in front of the other, and head upwards.
Keith re-parks the car further away from what he thinks is the road while I walk as fast as I can, which is not very, through the deep snow, going up, up, up. I slip down a little every few feet and continue heading up. We had made a compromise: I’d walk to the top of the hill through the untouched feet of snow if he made lunch for us while we were up there. Though we were both tourists in the town of Lindsborg, I was a tourist in my own way, along for the ride on his expedition into his family’s history. Yet we were both delving deep into our collective past, one of foreign settlers onto the western frontier of America, and I was hoping to gather some wisdom that would guide me on my path next. From the rising trail, I see him at the car, taking inventory of the back seat. The metal door splays open to the cold. Wheat bread, avocado, tomato, mustard, onion, check. He runs to catch up, sliding down every few feet just as I had along the way.
I pass through two huge iron gates on either side of the upward path. Above it, a large stone marks the entrance into the historic park. CORONADO – 1541 is engraved over a large cross and sword, marking memory of a Spanish explorer by the name of Francisco Vasquez Coronado. As history goes, he had found the hill while in search of the legend of an American Indian community called Quiveria and the Seven Cities of Gold in July,1541. Supposedly, his journals had marked his finding of this raised land and he was particularly interested in the soil from the valley below. If it was as fertile as it seemed, it would be a fit place for growing Spanish grapes, and potentially the beginning of a new venture in this strange, new land.
Keith and I trudge upwards, wondering what other histories we will uncover at the top. I find ease in stepping into the tracks of a large truck. Its grooves in the snow are paralleled by another marking, a smoothed track that follows that of the truck down to the bottom of the hill. The sound of an approaching engine unveils the source: three boys in a pick up truck roll down the hill. A fourth boy holds a body-sled strung with rope to the back of the truck. Boys from Bethany College, a Swedish Lutheran liberal arts school in town, just out for some Saturday fun. The wind catches their laughter and we smile at them as we pass. One’s got to get creative out here in Lindsborg, Kansas.
Away from the road I see the tips of stone steps leading upwards. Hoping to make a short cut, we trudge knee-deep through more untouched snow and continue up. The cold air fills my lungs, making it harder to breathe as I ascend. When I reach the top, a black stone castle is there to greet me. A nearby sign reads WPA 1936. Back during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration had built the thing, a place for locals to play. For a moment we are our own Coronado, the castle playing along as we pretend to be Spanish explorers, looking this way and that, racing to the top of the castle’s lookout points. I can almost hear the shouts and laughs of generations on the hill before us. Mid-summer Fourth of July picnics, teenage couples in their Fords and Chevies, the boys hoping for at least a kiss, the hard working men of the Great Depression, willing to build anything, even a plaything, for a slice of bread and something to do.
I find stability in an icy patch of snow at the top of the castle. Keith unpacks his big green coat, making a one-man assembly line of sandwich goods on the ledge of the stone wall. He removes his glove, fingertips immediately reddening and shrinking. He pulls out four slices of wheat bread, covers them with mustard, slices open the avocado with a plastic knife, and divides each half onto a slice of bread. He cuts the sides of the tomato, dashes it with salt and pepper stolen from a gas-station condiment stand, and tops both veggie piles with a few rings of raw white onion. I say nothing, receiving the sandwich in my dirty blue glove, not daring to bare my fingertips to the cold. The wind whips the plastic bread bag, balancing precariously on the stone ledge. Mustard streaks my cheek as I take a bite of my sandwich. An onion ring falls to the snow.
I sneak a kiss onto his red cheek and for a moment I forget my wet, frozen toes and appreciate the view, the miles and miles we can see from above it all, a rare occurrence in Kansas: McPherson, the strange alien-like-planet industrial town, belching orange-lighted factory steam twenty miles to the south; the steeples in Lindsborg, the Christian churches where Keith’s ancestors asked god for guidance in their new land, a sight I searched for answers to my own quest; the Kansas quilt, the snow-covered grid, the patchwork fields of alternating corn and soy, corn and soy, the roads like seams in between.
Claire Tighe is a writer and a coffee addict, two habits she finds go together like peas and carrots. She holds a degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from Dickinson College. Her previous work has appeared at Bedsider.org, PolicyMic (.Mic), and Women, Action & the Media. You can talk to her about corn and soy and other Midwestern things @ecofeminismo.